Author: Dempsey Travis

ISBN-13: 978-1932841671

Publisher: Agate Bolden

In a make believe world everyone gets along and there is not prejudice, hate, discrimination or injustice. In a make believe there are no race riots, housing being burned, people killed in the streets and the challenges and opportunities afforded to young people were equal. In Chicago in the 1920’s the harsh realities of prejudice, hate, segregation in schools and housing were prominent in the real world.

Louis Travis at a young age came to Chicago to be employed as a strikebreaker. Many of the white laborers walked out on their employers for more money and young Blacks were brought in to replace them. But, don’t think their jobs were easy or their lives more lucrative because they were thought to be gainfully employed. White people living in this city did not accept black doing many jobs that did not want to tackle, yet creating placing more obstacles in front of these eager workers causing tempers to flare, and violence often the end result.

An Autobiography of Black Chicago by Dempsey Travis gives readers a first hand emotional experience of what Blacks in Chicago during the 1920’s endured. A self-made millionaire, activist, jazz musician, author and former President of the NAACP, Travis takes us back to Chicago, witnessing the race riots, taking part in the violence and marching with Martin Luther King in 1960. Born in 1920 at the age of five he decided to become a businessman and with his ingenuity and creativity even at that young age his passion and drive to succeed comes through. Hearing his voice as he tells the story from the moment his father arrived in Chicago, including Jean Baptist Point Du Sable the first non-Native American to live near the mouth of the Chicago River, Travis’s life experience, the difficulties of Blacks to find suitable housing and live without the fear of hate and violence comes through in every chapter. Racism, hate, race riots, communities bombed and burned the experiences that many of us would never encounter and the racial tension that created a veil of darkness over this city when Blacks were assigned to live in pockets will evoke strong emotions in readers.

Educational experiences were limited and Blacks had to accept jobs, as Louis Travis did, in the stockyards. Advancement was not possible as white people felt blacks were taking their jobs; resentment was high even though many Blacks were better qualified and better educated. Many whites could not even read or write and promotions because of the color of their skin. But, it only got worse as the safety of so many was at stake and black people needed to be personally escorted within their own communities in order to be safe. 

Forced to sit in the rear of buses, give up their seats to white people, adhere to the Jim Crow Laws regarding seating in clubs in their community, blacks faced many indignities because of the color of their skin. White prisoners of war returning to their homes were treated better than blacks that fought beside them.  The saddest thing was that so many people differentiated blacks by color from “Blue veins,” to the brown bag test. Even today this still exists. This is a real test that is called the ruler test used in the early 19th century among upper class Black American societies and families to decide if a Black person had enough white to gain acceptance and admittance.

If your skin was darker than a brown paper bag, you were not included. Churches, colleges and many institutions employed as the author related this form of racial discrimination. But, nothing is more compelling than the author’s account of the “Red Summer” of 1919 where tensions rose due to the migration of African Americans from the rural South to the North that took place during the First World War. Men returned home from war, jobs were scarce, finding them in factories, warehouses and mills these newly arrived Southern blacks hoped to find financial security in a climate riddled with racial and ethnic prejudices. Riots broke out, zoning laws to separate blacks and whites were put in passed putting more restrictions on blacks.

Throughout the book we hear many different voices and understand the visions of not only the author but his uncles, father and lessons he learned from his grandmother that held fast within him all of his life. From becoming a musician, creating his own band and getting a union card at the age of 16 readers learn early on that this young man would be a success. Meeting many sports figures, hearing stories about Joe Louis, Nat Cole and other famous singers and meeting Dr. Martin Luther King, helped to create a road that would be paved with many disappointments, successes and hope.

Violence broke out in Chicago, many lives were lost, homes were burned and many were forced to move and relocate. But, Dempsey Travis became his own success by developing and creating his own real estate company, meeting the perfect woman forming a lifetime partnership. The story spans many decades and the reader gets a first hand view of the violence, his role in the NACCP and other organizations as well as his never ending drive to prove that the color of your skin has no bearing on what you can accomplish. Hearing his frustrations when entering college, trying to learn to read and write and finally being able to tackle some of the great authors of our time, Dempsey Travis will be an inspiration for all students white and black.

Dempsey Travis takes readers into the heart and minds of many civil rights leaders, facing adversity and finding his own path in life. Many thought him foolish, his aspirations too high you decide when you read An Autobiography of Black Chicago and learn about a man who followed his dreams and did not spend his life fighting nightmares.

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